Humor: Touring St. Paul
Every so often, jpeople are gripped by the urge to “get out of Dodge,” even if there isn’t a posse hot on their tail. My wife and I recently scratched the travel itch by visiting our eldest son in Minneapolis.
My wife enjoys house hunter television programs, and for some reason – I’m sure this was completely coincidental – our Twin Cities sojourn was all about touring homes.
We began with the lowest and most humble form of housing, a literal hole-in-the-wall place called the Wabasha Street Cave.
As our guide led a group of us tourists into the bowels of the cave, she explained how it all had been excavated with picks and shovels. The resulting cavern had the ambient temperature of a refrigerator and was about the right size for a Batcave. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Batmobile parked in one of the side caverns.
The cave has been used as a mushroom farm and a cheese-aging facility. Its most interesting iteration had been as a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
Our guide told us of a gangster-related fracas that erupted in the speakeasy one night. The sound of a loud argument was soon followed by the clatter of tommy guns. A waitress stumbled across the grisly result and reported it to the authorities.
Cops quickly swarmed the place. After they were done, the obviously corrupt police admonished the waitress for falsely reporting a multiple murder. Indeed, the crime scene had been scrubbed clean except for one minor detail: the telltale bullet-sized pock marks in the stone fireplace.
Official reports aside, I would say the gunfight happened. Dead men might tell no tales, but bullet holes don’t lie.
The next stop on our tour took us from the extremely humble to the soaringly grandiose.
The Cathedral of St. Paul has a commanding view of its namesake city. Like the caves we had just left, the cathedral’s principle construction material is stone. Although instead of rough-hewn sandstone, the cathedral contains megatons of gleaming marble and granite and travertine.
It’s difficult to overstate the ornate vastness of the cathedral’s interior. Everywhere the eye falls, there’s stained glass or glossy stone or polished hardwood. I can’t imagine what the annual Lemon Pledge budget must be.
As we wandered the cavernous sanctuary, I espied my good Lutheran wife lighting a candle. Out of Lutheran guilt, I stuffed some cash into the nearby donation box.
Heroic-size statues of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are located at the corners of the sanctuary. Maybe it’s my Lutheran upbringing, but each of the apostles seemed to wear an expression of mild dismay, as if they’re constantly being disappointed by the people passing before their marble eyes.
In keeping with our home tour theme, we next visited the humble Summit Avenue abode that was built by railroad tycoon James J. Hill.
Clad in sandstone, the Hill mansion is a Gilded Age over-the-top showpiece that’s approximately the size of a blimp hangar. I know that siblings can get on one’s nerves, but it's hard to believe that one family needed that much space.
We arrived at the Hill mansion (now a museum) shortly before it closed and opted to take a short tour of a few rooms. We viewed marble fireplaces that were large enough to park a car in and crystal chandeliers that were as big as our couch.
Organ music suddenly began to reverberate throughout the mansion. We strolled toward the source of the sound and discovered a museum guide named Fran working the keyboard of a massive pipe organ.
We chatted with Fran and learned that the organ had been installed when the mansion was constructed in 1890. Its bellows, which are located in the basement, were originally man-powered.
“The organ has 1,006 pipes,” said Fran. “Each key is connected directly to a pipe valve by a long wooden rod, so it takes some effort to play this thing. Back in the day, women weren’t allowed to play the organ because it was deemed too stressful.”
Fran quickly gave lie to that notion by playing a period tune called "After the Ball." When she finished, Fran didn’t seem the least bit stressed.
We asked Fran if any members of the Hill family played.
“No,” she replied, “Not a one.”
You know you’ve arrived when your household staff requirements include an organist and some bellows fellows.
After leaving the Hill house, we cruised slowly down Summit Avenue, gawking at one expansive mansion after another.
“I wonder what it would be like to live in one of those homes?” asked my wife.
“We could never afford it,” I replied. “But maybe I could get a job in one of them as a bellows guy.”